True Story

Sitting in a café in Dumaguete, we met a Norwegian man who advised us that although the Filipino people are very friendly, we should never invest any money here (we weren’t planning to). “They will rip you off!” he declared as he staggered away.

“There’s a man with a chip on his shoulder,” commented Fergus.

Then we looked up and saw this:

Man with a Ship on his Shoulder

How we laughed!

The Philippines: First Impressions

Perhaps it was coming directly from Singapore but it’s taken a little while to work out what’s different about the Philippines. And what’s familiar.

The people look very much like those in Malaysia but noticeably poorer. Designer fashions and branded trainers have made way here for threadbare t-shirts and flip-flops. And, of course, there’s not a Muslim headscarf in sight. Mostly Christian — a legacy of 16th century Spanish explorers — women here dress in the same kind of warm weather clothes you see in Hindu and Buddhist countries. Janet can finally put aside her long trousers and get back into shorts.

Like Nepal, there’s a home-made look to many of the houses, even concrete ones. And it’s not unusual to see an abandoned, half-built house alongside a beautifully tiled and painted one on one side and a giddily-angled wooden-stilted one the other. But the roads are in much better condition than Nepal. Not completely without bumpy, unsealed stretches but without the spine-jarring potholes that make Nepalese bus travel so arduous.

The food is a strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar, not helped by my finding Tagalog words rather difficult to fix in my memory (Sinigang, longganisa, kaldereta…). But the names aside, one thing is very clear: I wouldn’t want to be a vegetarian here. Everything has meat in it. In fact, meat seems to be something of a national obsession. There are roasted chicken shops on every corner in the city, as well as burger stands and restaurants fronted by a dizzying array of meaty stews and soups. As for flavours, after Thailand and all the Indian food we ate in Malaysia, it seems a little bland, relying on savoury flavours rather than spices, salt, sugar, lime juice or chillies. Still, now my palate has lowered its expectations, it’s really rather delicious… More like European or South American cooking than much of what we’ve had while abroad.

And it’s cheap. Not just compared to Singapore. Compared to anywhere else we’ve been. Dining in one of the nicest restaurants in Dumaguete, each dish only cost around £2. Pastries from a bakery cost 3p each. A 2km taxi ride cost 15p each. I feel surprisingly wealthy.

But our new-found wealth comes at a price. There’s poverty here. Lots of it. I’ve not seen a single overweight person – something I’ve come to realise represents GDP fairly accurately over the countries we’ve moved through. And we’ve seen kids begging for the first time since Nepal. But despite the hardship, everyone is incredibly friendly. You can smile at and make jokes with strangers. People are helpful. And everyone speaks great English with a charming, half-American accent and American-style tendency to call strangers “sir” or “ma’am”.

Finally, the landscape here is both beautiful and unlike anywhere else we’ve been. Made up of so many islands, we’ve never been far from the coastline and ferries or bangkas (outrigger-style wooden motor boats) are required for a lot of journeys. But the interior is lush and rises dramatically away from the seafront, with plant-life that ranges from familiar banana plants and coconut palms to more deciduous-looking trees I’ve yet to identify. And, for the first time since we left home, there’s a breeze.

It’s refreshing to be somewhere unfamiliar. Having to take in even the little details seems to slow time down, and I’m enjoying having to think on my feet rather than rest on experience when making my way around. My first impressions have been very pleasant so far.

Flying Blind into the Philippines

At the time it seemed like a good idea to spend our last evening in Singapore visiting one of its famous drinking spots, Clarke Quay, where swish bars nestle along the riverfront, and well dressed, white toothed young people gaily spend fortunes on expensive drinks and fine foods. And it was definitely part of the Singapore experience.

But at 5am the next morning, when the alarm rang for our flight to the Philippines, it was hard not to regret the lack of sleep, muddled hungover head, exhausted children and considerably lighter wallet our trip to the waterfront had provided us.

Still, we made the flight, and collapsing, bleary-eyed and exhausted into our seats, got out the guidebook and tried to decide where to go in this new, unfamiliar country. Having no real idea what to expect from the Philippines, for the first time since arriving in Nepal, we were going in blind, having neither booked anywhere to stay nor even decided which town (or even which island) to stay in.

While we were flying into Cebu, it was obvious from our guidebook that we would want to get away from Cebu City as soon as we could. Should we head elsewhere on Cebu island? Hop over to a different one? But then… which of the surrounding islands to choose? Cebu is in the centre of the Visayas, a group of islands towards the south of the country, all of which sounded appealing in their own ways but tricky enough to travel between that we would have to just choose a few to hop between during our eighteen days in the country. Should we choose rugged Leyte, chilled-out Bohol, witchcraft-haunted Siquijor, beach-paradise Malapascua, dive-mecca Panglau…

The Visayas, the Philippines

The Visayas, the Philippines

Eventually we plumped for Negros, persuaded by the Lonely Planet’s introduction of, “if one island has it all”. With diving, hiking up the regions tallest peak, caving, snorkelling, beautiful, remote beaches, and, most appealing, a capitol (Dumaguete) lacking the usual chaos and hustle of Filipino cities and charmingly nicknamed The City of Gentle People. It looked just the place to stop, settle in, get our bearings and familiarise ourselves a little with Filipino culture.

Unfortunately, reaching Dumaguete also meant extending our already exhausting journey into an epic dash across the region, involving multiple taxis, long-distance buses, trikes and ROROs with increasingly exhausted kids in tow and without any guarantee of a bed at the end of our journey.

From start to finish, getting here took seventeen hours. It was sometimes fraught, occasionally baffling and not knowing if we would arrive too late to find a room or if we’d even get to somewhere with accommodation by the time we ran out of transport links added a constant anxiety. But everyone we met was friendly and helpful, and considering that we started the day unfamiliar with the Philippines, we got to see a broad range of places through various windows (and hanging off trikes) that have helped us get a sense of where we are.

And we made it.

Our first choice of hotel had rooms, is clean, comfortable and friendly, and positioned right on the promenade. As I came out to Janet where she waited by our overloaded trike still stuffed with bags and sleepy children and gave her the thumbs up, we all cheered, checked in at lightning speed, threw ourselves into bed with a real sense of exhausted a

It's gone dark but we're still on the road (or the ferry in this case – from Cebu to Negros)

It’s gone dark but we’re still on the road (or the ferry in this case – from Cebu to Negros)

ccomplishment and had fallen asleep within moments.

 

Much of the thrill of travelling is to launch yourself into the unknown but to come through, tired but invigorated from having experienced the unexpected. It was exhilarating, winging our way here and I feel like we’re really travelling again after the comfortable modernity of Singapore, all the prebooking we had to do in Thailand and Malaysia and staying still for so long in Nepal.

But I think we’ll stay still for a day or two now.>

Our Singaporean Pit Stop

NB I wrote this post last week, in Singapore but was too busy shopping to finish writing it. Hopefully posting it from here in the Philippines isn’t too confusing…

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Each country we’ve moved on to in our travels has been more modern, more developed, more reliable, richer, cleaner and safer than the last.

In the mountains of Nepal we were walking through regions where everything not made from wood or yaks had to be carried in on the backs of porters, and even in Kathmandu, all roads were single lane and buying anything above necessities was often a laborious task taking up much of the day, if they were available at all.

Arriving in Thailand seemed like being transported into the future – landing in Bangkok was like being swept into a sci-fi film, with its fast cars, neon signs and slick crowds… until we reached Malaysia, where everything again grew bigger and less ramshackle.

But now we have reached Singapore, and suddenly even Malaysia seems ramshackle.

We came travelling in part to escape our safe, predictable, comfortable Western lives. We wanted adventure. We wanted to experience life as the other half of the World’s population live it. And we have. But as well as being stimulating, travelling is also tiring. So arriving in what is essentially a modern Western city after six months on the road is rather a relief.

It’s a chance go shopping without endless haggling, take taxis without arguing over fares, to travel by easy-to-understand, punctual public transport, to enjoy people speaking perfect English, to drink the water and trust the food, to have your privacy respected by strangers, to trust the police. Not that there aren’t downsides: it’s expensive, commercial and scarily strict. But we’re only here for a week. Hopefully we can behave ourselves.

And the city itself is amazing. The skyline is a mosaic of skyscrapers, the monorail is clean and fast, the streets are clean, the people healthy-looking and well-groomed. Like Central London with the grubby bits erased.

So, for a brief few days before we fly out to the Philippines, we’re recharging our batteries and depleting our savings. We’re visiting sights (the zoo, Universal Studios, the ArtScience museum, the famous Raffles Hotel), gawping at the architecture, eating Western food, spending hours in the seemingly endless shopping malls refreshing our well-worn wardrobes, collecting a parcel in the only poste restante we trust in the region, buying gadgets… I’m even going to a game shop for an evening to indulge my hobby of wargaming.

I reckon I’ll be ready to leave here before long, but until then, we’re all enjoying the relief that is Singapore – a home from home while our money lasts.

My Foot

My Injured Foot

We’ve been to some dangerous places on this trip: Himalayan peaks, secluded jungles, lonely beaches, rocky reefs, pitch-black swim-throughs, remote diving trips, not to mention trying to negotiate third-World-city traffic… yet it was only yesterday that I had my first injury. In Legoland. That’s right. In possibly Asia’s safest, most engineered-so-not-even-toddlers-can-have-an-accident environment, I managed to slip and tear a big chunk out of my foot.

Walking along, carrying a big inner tube for one of the water slides, my knee inexplicably buckled, my foot slipped on the smooth stone and just as it was flying forward as fast as possible, crossed over from smooth flooring to (ironically) a rough, non-slip one. Unfortunately, it seems that non-slip surfaces, when attacked at high velocity by bare skin, turn from safety feature to cheese grater, leaving me in this case, several lumps of foot lighter.

Now my foot is all bandaged up and I’m walking with a limp… just as we’re arriving in Singapore where there’s nothing much else to do but walk around malls, parks, tourists sights, zoos and the like. And next we’re headed to the Philippines where I was really forward to diving with whale sharks. I really hope my foot’s healed enough to wear fins within the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, Singapore is by far the safest place we’ve visited on our travels. Which probably means I should be particularly careful. It seems that it’s the safe places you need to watch out for.